I once made a point of looking out the script for ‘The Bitter Taste of Youth’, part of the BBC’s long-running and much respected police show Dixon of Dock Green, about the work of a working-class London beat bobby, George Dixon, played by Jack Warner. This particular episode, shown on January 26, 1963, dealt with 16-year-old Jill Adams (played by 28-year-old Maureen Beck), who runs away from home and gets into trouble.
I had read in a 1990s television reference book that Jill winds up getting her bottom smacked by Dixon, which was praised by viewers as an appropriately commonsense outcome. I was disappointed to find that, as the script reveals, no such thing happened in the episode, and I can only assume that the author who said it did had misunderstood something he’d read in a contemporary review. (He can’t have seen the program itself, which was broadcast before he was born and junked while he was in kindergarten.) Maybe he took an opinion about what should have happened to Jill to be a statement of what actually did. For our purposes today, the interest lies in the gap between the two.
We can develop the point with reference to a 1938 story in the US newspaper strip Radio Patrol (1933-50). The central character, Sergeant Pat, issues a speeding ticket to the Mayor’s daughter, who tears it up, causing him to remark that she needs ‘a darn good spanking’.
This isn’t just a casual threat: he reiterates the opinion when she has gone,
and again after a second encounter goes badly,
and yet again when he’s called in to see the Mayor about the incident:
It’s even mentioned for a fifth time in a ‘story so far’ panel three weeks later.
Despite the implication that his job might be at risk, Pat actually gets assigned to prestigious special duties, to wit, guarding the young lady from criminals out to undermine the Mayor. And despite the indication that her father doesn’t actively disapprove, the whole emphatic chain of references leads nowhere: the much needed, much telegraphed spanking simply doesn’t happen.
If the story strikes you as vaguely familiar, that’s because it’s a blatant plagiarism of ‘The Purple Tiger’, a 1936 comic-book story about another traffic cop and another spoiled speedster daughter of a man in authority, with the signal difference that the initial encounter ends like this:
(You can read more about it here.)
So the 1938 rehash is at the same time completely sold on the idea of the spanking and ultimately averse to making it an incident in the story.
But of course it is an incident in the 1936 version: police spankings do sometimes happen, but there’s an inbuilt tension about whether they should happen. This starts to emerge more clearly in ‘Like Fred’, the January 30, 1975, episode of the Australian cop show Matlock Police, in which Constable Gary Hogan (Paul Cronin) is sent as temporary relief cover to the outlying small town of Ringtail. The story concerns his difficulties dealing with the locals, among them Ginny Taylor (Helen Hemingway), who gets ‘dealt with’ an entirely salutary way:
But the point of the story is that Hogan is using methods that fall outside the usual rules of police conduct: the spanking is not something he’d do on his ordinary beat, but proves necessary out here in the boondocks.
The wider issue here has to do with expediency. The boys in blue routinely face situations and behavior that are out of the ordinary, and have to decide how to manage them to achieve the most appropriate outcome. From time to time, that might make spanking the optimal option.
Take the case of Mrs Denise Winterbottom, formerly the Irish heiress Denise Lynch, but on her second husband and in her early 40s by the time of the incident in question.
Declared bankrupt during the Second World War, she carried on spending money with frivolous disregard, until the police decided that racking up bills she couldn’t pay was a case of fraud, and arrived at her Chelsea residence to arrest her. But Denise, clad only in her nightdress, tried to persuade them that she was ill and confined to bed and therefore unable to accept their kind invitation to spend some time in a nice cosy cell. After medical opinion declared her fit and well and suitable for incarceration, she still remained disinclined to submit to arrest, whereupon the solution was spotted on the lady’s dressing table.
It seems the prospect of a scorching hot bot was too much for Mrs Winterbottom, and, rather than be put across the constable’s knee, she finally consented to a trip to the police station. This turned out to be the first step towards a six-month sentence.
Tricky situations don’t end when a miscreant is in custody, as we can illustrate with the case of Pimu (Sointu Angervo).
She’s a beatnik in the Finnish movie Tähdet Kertovat, Komisario Palmu (1962; The Stars will Tell, Inspector Palmu), and it may be considered relevant, or at least interesting, to see her from another angle.
She’s being questioned by the senior detective on the case, the high-flying intellectual Toivo Virta (Matti Ranin),
but she’s obviously a lot more interested in giving him the come-on than in helping with his inquiries.
He just doesn’t know what to do with the girl who’s sprawling suggestively on his desk.
Fortunately his older and more worldly subordinate, Inspector Palmu (Joel Rinne), does:
But of course it’s not an approach that’s guaranteed to pay off. A year after Palmu’s palm went into action, here’s another out-of-control young lady with her rear end at risk:
Judi Dench played teenager Elena Collins in ‘Made for Each Other’, the September 11, 1963, episode of Z Cars, the BBC’s harder-hitting alternative to Dixon of Dock Green. Caught squatting in an empty house by constables Jock Weir (Joseph Brady) and Fancy Smith (Brian Blessed), she proves spectacularly recalcitrant and uncooperative, until finally Weir, who has so far played ‘good cop’ in the questioning, tells her she will end up ‘across somebody’s knee – it’ll be me sooner than him the way you’re behaving’.
The future theatrical dame doesn’t get spanked, you’ll probably be disappointed to hear, but the threat alone is worth it for her complex facial reaction: first the familiar dismay of a girl who thinks she might have overstepped the mark,
and then the outraged realization that this is actually what he has done.
As we’ve already established, it’s outside the norms of police procedure, so it may be a risk for the officer as well as the prospective victim, depending on how his operational actions are construed afterwards: justifiable because necessary and effective, or conduct unbecoming a public servant?
Things become more clear-cut when we move later in the process, when spanking is a potential outcome rather than a way of handling an ongoing and potentially out-of-control situation. California traffic cop B. W. Box knew the score in 1932 when he had an encounter with the minor movie actress Noel Francis.
When pulled over for irresponsible driving, she responded as poorly to his reprimand as the Mayor’s daughter did to Sergeant Pat in a similar situation, but Box kept his powder dry and Noel found herself in court being fined. Box had this to say about it:
‘I only wish it was possible for the judge to give me permission to spank that girl for the way she talked to me.’
The point is not only that he knew it wasn’t going to happen, but also that he knew he’d need the judge’s authorization to administer what he considered the appropriate and merited reprisal. We see it again, with reference to a different higher authority, in the teenage delinquent drama Beat Girl (1960), when Jennifer Linden (Gillian Hills) falls into bad company.
At the very end, when she is being taken home from the scene of a crime she has witnessed, the police sergeant tells her father (David Farrar),
‘If it weren’t for my pension, I’d wallop her. You’d better take over.’
And, according to a still taken on the set, though sadly not in the final cut of the movie, Mr Linden took his advice:
The father can spank his daughter, but the policeman would lose job and pension if he did – except in the kind of special circumstances that we find in ‘Constabulary Duty’, a short story by Calvin M. Knox published in Science Fiction Stories (June 1958).
Sergeant Jim O’Reilly, of Groundside Traffic Control at Long Island Spaceport, detects a ‘sportster’ spaceship doing illegal loop-the-loop maneuvers round Earth. The pilot is spoiled rich girl Melva Collins, daughter of the industrialist head of the Collins Spacecraft Corporation, and in line with the typical behavior of spoiled rich girls in earlier times, she defies his order to stop and is duly brought down by remote control.
On the tarmac, drenched in the pouring rain, Melva responds to Jim’s confiscation of her pilot’s license by threatening him with her father, who happens to be a a director of Long Island Spaceport and therefore his employer. Later Mr Collins summons Jim and begins the conversation by telling him that Melva has ‘always been a headstrong girl’. Jim misreads the signals and, fully expecting to be fired, launches into a bout of preemptive self-justification. But Collins reassures him:
‘You don’t know how happy I am that Melva’s going to be suspended; I only hope it’s a life suspension and not merely a few years. I called you over to congratulate you, that’s all. And to thank you. It’s the first time in twenty-three years that anybody has been able to discipline that girl.’
Melva comes in, still dripping, and throws a tantrum when her father refuses her demand for Jim’s dismissal. Then Jim weighs in with ‘an impertinent suggestion’:
‘I think I know what your daughter needs. And it isn’t a pilot’s license.’
‘It’s a good sound spanking,’ Collins said. ‘I’ve known that for years.’
He asks Jim to oblige, even though ‘it’s not quite in the realm of a traffic officer’s duties’; but Jim demurs, calls it ‘corrective discipline’, and says that, on the contrary, it is part of his duties. Melva in turn demurs at the demurral:
‘Keep your hands off me, O’Reilly. Don’t come near me! Don’t…’
O’Reilly advanced relentlessly, cornered the kicking girl without much trouble and bent her over his knee. He paused and looked doubtfully at Collins. The old man was beaming with unmistakable approval.
It’s been a long, tough day, O Reilly thought. But here’s where I even the score. His arm rose and fell rhythmically.
For once, duty was pleasure for O’Reilly.
But very occasionally, a policeman doesn’t feel the need for any authority beyond his own position. Strangely, this brings us back to Sergeant Pat of Radio Patrol, who was so sure the Mayor’s daughter needed a spanking but never got to give it to her. But two years later, a 1940 sequence of the same strip had a different outcome.
A group of teenagers discover that some firebugs are planning to burn down a riverside warehouse, but rather than call the police they decide to nab the crooks themselves. Summoned by her friend, Red sneaks out on the crucial night,
only to learn that they are going in short-handed.
And once in the warehouse, they realize how unwise they have been and become scared, but can’t get out. Luckily for them, the absent Billy’s family have notified the police, and Sergeant Pat and his colleagues arrive to arrest the villains, after which Pat tells Red that what she needs is…
Maybe that’s easier to swallow when it’s administered to a teen rather than a young woman in her 20s, and when it’s a response to foolhardy behavior rather than motoring offenses that the courts might deal with; but even so, Red does have a family and, going by what we’ve previously seen, that’s the context in which you might have expected her to be punished.
The inconsistency is the point. It was a society where other interested individuals might intrude on a parent’s authority to spank, most notably teachers who were formally in loco parentis, and of course boyfriends who might hope to be taking over one day; but sometimes a teen might even get a spanking from an aggrieved neighbor, and that ought to make it unproblematic for a society’s legitimate representatives of law and order to do it too when appropriate.
Yet people evidently were ambivalent about the police, which produced not only the diversity of attitudes underlying the different cases discussed in this article, but also the inherent ambiguity of this splendid photo from 1930s Ontario:
Is the cop signaling approval, the ‘thumbs up’, or is he applying the legendary ‘rule of thumb’ and testing the stick for legality?
These are dilemmas that we shall come back to next time.
Disclaimer: The Radio Patrol spanking panels have been substantially doctored to focus attention onto the area of interest and away from one that is, at least for me, of no interest.